BFI Film Fund head Ben Roberts notes new relaxed eligibility criteria will encourage more breadth of producers to apply.

The British Film Institute today launches the application process for its revamped Vision Awards, which will dole out up to £2.5m to UK production companies over the next two years.

The closing date for applications is Feb 22 and successful applicants are likely to be announced in early April.

These awards are for UK production companies to invest in development, to support the production sector and help grow sustainable production companies.

The BFI plans to make up to 10 awards of up to £100,000 per year for two years (mid-2013 to mid-2015). Also there will now be up to five further awards of up to £50,000 per year for two years.

The money can be spent in myriad ways, from optioning source material to paying writers to hiring development executives.

Applications will be judged on “quality of application and need,” BFI Film Fund head Ben Roberts told Screen. “It’s about helping companies at a certain stage to grow.”

This replaces the UK Film Council Vision Awards where there had been £75,000 per year awarded over two years; the aim with the new investment levels is to increase support for both companies that need smaller help and larger help.

Previous applications for Vision Awards needed applicants to have two features that had been distributed theatrically in the UK; that is now at least one film that screened theatrically in the UK and in at least one major international territory in the past five years.

Roberts continued: “Eligibility criteria has softened ever so slightly, so we can make awards to more fledgling companies. That’s also reflecting the distribution and exhibition landscape as well.”

“There are a number of production companies out there running on really small overhead where a little help from us could really get them started,” Roberts said.

Recognising that feature animation is a tougher business, animation production companies don’t need to boast a theatrically released feature, they only need to have produced two animated shorts that have won an industry award or had a transmission on UK television.

Roberts hopes to increase the breadth of the supported companies with the new application criteria. “Breadth of storytelling is the ambition,” he added.

He added: “I’d like to see a broader range of applications come in, more from outside London, more from production companies coming from different backgrounds, telling a slightly more diverse range of stories. That’s a real ambition of ours.

“We’re inviting applications from everybody. It’s important to grow production companies that can be based wherever producers want to live and work. Hopefully by softening those criteria a bit, we’ll enable that a bit.”

He added: “You’ve got small businesses who want to grow but they don’t have the capacity to do that. This allows them a lot of flexibility, a lot of creative autonomy, a chance to physically grow their business, a chance to grow their slate. It a less piecemeal approach rather than coming for one handful and then another handful. You’re allowed to do what you want to do without an additional editorial voice.”

No specific slate plans have to be approved for the award. “The decision is based on track record and their plans and vision, we’re not signing on off on a development slate in advance. Its pure creative autonomy for them,” Roberts said.

Past recipients of Vision Awards (which last ran 2009-2011 under the UKFC) include Blueprint Films, Dan Films, Ecosse Films, Free Range Films, Origin Pictures, See-Saw, Sigma and Vertigo.

The BFI also continues to fund development for specific projects via the Film Fund (about £4m per year for 150 projects). Recently announced awards include Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, Alex Williams’ CG animated feature My Haunted House, and Coded Pictures’ big-screen adaptation of James Meek’s novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent.

Meanwhile, later in January the BFI will offer new applications for its Distribution Fund (formerly the P&A Fund). Those will include a new ‘responsive’ funding strand for films that need ongoing support while on release.